A Brit in America #2 – The Driving Test

I took my driving test in Mid-Wales, back in 2010. Since moving to the States, I’ve been able to use my UK license for driving. However, this year I finally found that I was going to need to get a US license. I had, at one point, hoped that I might be able to just show that I have a UK license, and they’d give me US one. The UK and the US are fairly close, and there’s really not that much difference in the practice of driving (I’ve only driven on the wrong side of the road a couple of times in many years). The idea is not a totally foreign concept to the Department of Driver Services: there is, indeed, a “reciprocity” program with a list of countries that it applies to. Well. They say a list. It’s a list of one country. Can you guess which one? Yes! That’s right! South Korea! Naturally…

So, it turned out I was going to have to take a theory test and a practical test (and pay for them, of course -_-). When I learned to drive, I took a semi-intensive course over a summer, it was hard work, and the test was intimidating, so the whole thing had me a little tense.

In the UK, the theory test consists of (if I remember correctly) 50 questions about all sorts of eventualities that you’ll never actually come across (I’m particularly glad that I still have the legal speed limit for towing a trailer burned into my memory). It then has a hazard perception section where you watch a series of videos, and have to click when you see the hazard. Too soon, and it’ll think you’re clicking randomly, too late and you’ve missed it and get docked points. It was a challenge, but I did pretty well. But that was seven years ago. I assumed the US would have something similar.

Spoiler alert: they don’t. What they have are two sets of 20 questions. The first set are “what does this sign mean” questions, which are hardly difficult as most of them say what they mean. The second set are more what I was used to, but felt toned down somewhat. The kicker here being that you only have to score 75% on each section. That means you can get five questions wrong, and they’ll shrug and say “eh, seems like he’s got the gist of it” and send you away with a permit. In the second set, there was actually a tricky question, but as it was question sixteen and I’d got the first fifteen correct, I could have just clicked randomly for the rest and still passed. As far as hazard perception goes? Completely absent. But, never mind. This is only the theory section, the practical test will make sure that people know what they’re doing on the road.


When I took my test in the UK, we started in the middle of town, drove through it, dealing with traffic, signals, and signs. We left the town and went around the back roads and smaller villages of the area, often getting up to 60 miles an hour. I had to do several maneuvers, including three-point turns, parking, etc, and then get back. A single “major fault” (anything that means another driver has to slow down for you, or worse), or three “minor faults” in the same area (such as forgetting to signal or failing to shift gear properly) and you fail. At the end of it, you have to have shown that you can deal with a wide range of driving scenarios.

The US test on the other hand… In an empty car park: drive forward, stop, reverse, stop, park in between these cones. Great. Then we go out on the road. I’m prepared for anything. We stop at a stop sign. All good. I’m ready to get out on the busy road to our left. Then the examiner has me turn right. We go onto a small deserted back road. Speed limit: 25mph. Okay, now the test in the UK had slower back road areas, I’m sure we’ll get to more challenging stuff later. We drive along a little way, bit of a curve, couple of turns. Speed limit the same. Then we come to a busy road. Perfect! Turn onto it, actually around some other cars for the first time, and we’re on there in just the right lane for maybe 500 yards and we’re turning back into the original car park. Park. Done. Well done, you’ve passed. I’m told you can score under 75% on this test and fail as well, but how, I’ll never know.

This wouldn’t bother me if that driving was even a little representative of the area. But we were half a mile from an interstate with a 70mph speed limit. Apparently, the US DDS is happy to go “can you drive forward and backwards at low speeds? Great, off you go then, have fun on the six-lane highways!”

An additional gripe: I’ve been in cars with people in the US who drive a manual (stick-shift) and grind away at their gears as if they’ve never been taught properly. This seemed odd: in the UK, if you take your test in an automatic, you can only drive an automatic. Apparently, in the US, you can take your test in an automatic, and then legally drive down the freeway in a manual transmission, stuck in first gear, if the fancy strikes you.

So, Americans, if you find that there are terrible drivers on the road, I may have some explanations for you…


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